Like a good wine, America’s food scene has matured wonderfully over the years.
Foodies fancying a US holiday with a slice of American pie can take a bite of the Big Apple’s bagels, chow down on Boston’s clam chowder, be a big cheese with Philadelphia’s Philly Steak – and tuck into many more iconic dishes in cities across the States. But dining out in the States is now a culinary delight.
One city yet to make it onto the main course for British visitors is Baltimore. A stone’s throw from the nation’s capital, Washington DC, and nestling at the top of Chesapeake Bay, it may still rank as a side dish for us. But this Maryland city famous as the birthplace of the US national anthem, Star-Spangled Banner (it was written during a bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British in the War of 1812), is a firm favourite with American diners.
Restaurant rater Zagat ranked it at number two in its list of top US food cities in 2015 and it was in its top 30 of America’s most exciting food cities in 2017.
Having last visited Baltimore 15 years ago, I am long overdue seconds. I’m on a gastro tour and I want to taste the reborn Baltimore.
Getting there is easy, thanks to the WOW Air service from Gatwick, with a change of plane in Reykjavik, Iceland, flying into Baltimore Washington International Airport. My journey is made even smoother by dropping my car off outside the terminal at Gatwick, handing the keys over to a driver with I Love Meet and Greet. No more long-stay car parks for me, hauling bags on and off courtesy buses after driving round for ages looking for a parking spot. I really do love meet and greet services – and they offer great value, too.
Less than half an hour after being picked up at Baltimore’s airport, I’m looking out over the city’s picturesque Inner Harbour from my hotel room at the Royal Sonesta Harbour Court.
Historically a blue-collar city, seafood has always been Baltimore’s typical fare. As my host from Visit Baltimore explains, recent years have brought food styles from regions and cultures as diverse as South America, the Mediterranean, India and South East Asia, with chefs innovating and even collaborating by having pop-ups in each other’s restaurants or swapping sommeliers. There are also several Michelin-starred chefs. As a result, Baltimore is now firmly on the map for its cuisine.
I retire for the night, my appetite well and truly whetted. Next morning, breakfast is at contemporary eatery Modern Cook Shop, in the trendy Fell’s Point neighbourhood, which boasts 120 pubs and bars. Wire cages full of old food tins and packets form screens between tables. The waitress recommends house-made scrapple (like a sliced sausage loaf) with eggs. It doesn’t disappoint.
Quaint 18th century merchants’ houses line the Fell’s Point waterfront opposite the chic, new Sagamore Pendry Baltimore Hotel, set in the old harbourmaster’s building across the Patapsco River from clothing giant Under Armour’s HQ. The hotel is owned by its CEO, Kevin Plank.
I take a break from eating to enjoy a bird’s eye view of Baltimore in a six-passenger Bell 407 helicopter with Charm City Helicopters. On the 15-minute aerial tour, pilot and co-founder Freddie Ephrahim points out highlights including the Inner Harbour, the stadiums of the Baltimore Ravens NFL team and Baltimore Orioles baseball team and the star-shaped Fort McHenry, at the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Patapsco River.
A traditional lunch of Maryland blue crabs follows, on the outdoor Crab Deck of Phillips, a Baltimore Inner Harbour institution. After two piles of crabs are tipped onto brown paper covering the table, our waitress, Sarah, demonstrates “crab picking” – breaking the shells apart with a wooden mallet and your fingers to get the tasty meat. It’s a messy affair as we get cracking. The optional disposable aprons are definitely advised!
The new Sagamore Spirit Distillery, also owned by Kevin Plank and the first waterfront distillery in the US, offers tours and whiskey tasting. It would be rude not to oblige. Maryland had over 240 distilleries until Prohibition and Sagamore is one of around 20 now in the state. The 83 proof rye whiskey and 110-plus proof cask-strength rye whiskeys we see being distilled, from spring water trucked down from upstate Sagamore Farm where race horses including legendary thoroughbred Native Dancer were raised by the Vanderbilts, won’t be ready to be bottled until 2021. Whiskeys being sold now have been distilled in Kentucky.
I watch the sun set on the terrace of Wit & Wisdom, an upscale tavern by celebrity chef Michael Mina in Baltimore’s harbourside Four Seasons Hotel, drinking strawberry mule sundowners. Dinner comprises a tuna tartare starter followed by a lobster pot pie with wagyu beef, both extravagantly prepared at the table, then an assortment of exquisite desserts paired with wines after moving to high stools at the Kitchen Table, in front of the show kitchen.
Inner Harbour dining icon Miss Shirley’s is famed for its Chesapeake and Southern-influenced home-style breakfast, brunch and lunch. Eggs benedict with crab, washed down with a Bloody Mary containing crabmeat and flavoured with Baltimore favourite Old Bay seasoning sounds too good not to try. With sides of devilled eggs, fried green tomatoes and monkey bread for good measure!
Exploring the uber-cool Hampden neighbourhood’s retro boutique shops, I sample artisan chocolates from around the world at Ma Petite Shoe, where owner Susannah Siger also stocks quirky designer shoes including ones inspired by Disney and Star Wars.
R. House, a 350-seat food hall set in an old car body repair workshop, is a launchpad for rising chefs. It features 10 permanent food stalls run by local chefs plus a pop-up stall featuring budding chefs for a week at a time. During my visit, Colombian chef Valeria Fuentes has taken a break from running an after-school programme teaching inner-city school kids about Central American cuisine to run a pop-up kitchen called Kinetic Kitchen. I try a special dish from her home country, chicken majadito with avocados. It’s delicious.
Baltimore is enjoying a craft beer boom, like many places in the US, and breweries have mushroomed in recent years. The three-hour minibus tour takes in three of the city’s dozen breweries – Oliver Brewing Co, Brew House No 16, in a former fire station, and Waverly Brewing Co – and I try a selection. They rejoice in names such as Ironman, Bishop’s Breakfast, Strawberry Bang Bang and the Local Oyster, which is brewed using oyster shells. Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll stick to Adnams at my local in Essex. I find most American craft beers overpoweringly scented or flavoured and these just reinforce my views, disappointing enthusiastic tour guide Emerson.
Baltimore is much as I remember from before, but there is so much more going on across the city now. There’s a real buzz, thanks to its vibrant, eclectic eating and drinking scene.
The city has become a world-class, cosmopolitan dining destination – and I’m definitely going back for more!
Photos Copyright © 2017 Peter Ellegard